Tuesday, May 31, 2011
I have great deal of trouble doing many things, but getting through the night restfully has never been one of them. While my friends and relatives often become disturbed mid-sleep by earthquakes and rowdy neighbors, I generally have to be told of these disturbances in the morning. It takes an act of God to wake me from a slumber. This fact increases the peculiarity of one night years ago. The night began as most do for me, reading from a book before bed. I made an effort to fall asleep around 11 PM, and actually fell asleep (I’m guessing, of course) at approximately 11:15. Based on prior nights of similar routine, I should have woken up rested (albeit slightly groggy between 7:30 and 8 AM. This night, however, did not go undisturbed.
When I awoke at 2:30 AM, it was just like I would have at my normal waking time. There was no nightmare that sparked my sudden rise, and it was not an issue of not being able to fall asleep in the first place. I woke up quite normally; simply at a time much earlier than to what I was accustomed. After trying to fall back to sleep for roughly twenty minutes, I decided that it was just not going to happen. So, I ventured out of my bedroom and into my living room where I turned on the television. When I flipped on the television it was precisely 3 AM. Strangely enough, the set was turned to PBS (a station I rarely, if ever watch). Beginning just as I sat down was a documentary program titled, “A Song’s Best Friend: John Denver Remembered.” Although I had certainly heard of John Denver before this moment, I’d be lying if I claimed to be at all familiar with his music. I’d be an even worse liar if I claimed at that moment to be an admirer of Denver’s genre of music. Folk and Country music were long ways off from the “classic” and “progessive” rock of which I claimed to be an enthusiast. My distaste for Denver’s genre was coupled with a presumptuous notion that his lyrics concerned solely the most cheery and falsely idealistic facets of life. I didn’t care much at that point in time to indulge in sappy campfire music. All of these sentiments combined should have served as ample motivation for me to change the channel. But for some reason I didn’t. I sat for the next sixty minutes fixated on the screen. In the end, I felt completely changed.
The hour-long special covered significant events in Denver’s career and personal life, as well as insightful commentaries by loved ones and professional acquaintances regarding some of his most notable and enduring songs. The program served as an outstanding introduction to Denver’s accomplishments as a songwriter, lyricist, and social activist. Since then, I have become familiar with a much wider selection of Denver’s music, and have developed an affection for the sentiments he contributed to an often diluted music industry, as well as an often troubled world. In this piece I’ll do my best to point out why two of Denver’s most popular songs are worth listening to.
“Honesty” is the word that strikes me whenever I listen to some of Denver’s most famous tunes. “Annie’s Song,” which has become a personal archetype for what a love song should be, conveys the feeling of love in an astoundingly evocative way. The song begins with a vulnerable admission: “You fill up my senses like a night in the forest; like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain.” This opening strikes a chord with me with each listen. We all know what it is like to feel euphoria. Often, it seems, these feelings cause us to pause and take in life in ways that we never thought possible. For John Denver, feelings of euphoria could be found in the intricate beauties of nature. Given his admitted love of the earth and natural splendors, it is all too flattering to the subject of this song that his love for her was compared, even equated to the most magnificent of nature’s feats. Also, I should point out how powerful it is that Denver described this love as filling up his senses… completely engulfing him in that brilliant euphoric feeling. We should all dream of being so lucky to experience this, just once… even for an instant. The lyric continues with other evocative comparisons for life, such as “like a storm in the desert, like a sleep Blue ocean.” Finally, the song concludes with the line, “Come fill me again.” For me, this all-important conclusion illustrates a raw and powerful human compulsion to repeatedly crave moments of love and grandeur.
One of Denver’s other great feats as a songwriter was his to capture the allure of things that have come to be perceived as mundane or insignificant. “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” one of Denver’s other beautifully honest compositions, illustrates how we do not need to modify our instinctual responses to stimuli in order to be profound. Again, the appeal of the song and its messages are rooted in the honesty and childlike simplicity of the lyrics. “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy. Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry. Sunshine on the water looks so lovely. Sunshine almost always makes me high.” While these words can easily be labeled as primitive, unrefined, or lacking sophistication, I argue that they are the product of an insightful form of sophistication. They are an acknowledgment that sometimes, possibly at the most important of times, the beauty of an idea should speak for itself, without being tampered with by a writer’s ego or need to impress with flowery prose. This song also makes an effort to convey the splendor that accompanies the sharing of something beautiful with someone else. Denver writes, “If I had a tale that I could tell you, I’d tell a tale sure to make you smile. And if I had a wish that I could wish for you, I’d make a wish for sunshine all the while.” These innocent sentiments are divine.
Writing briefly about these two songs beings me a great sense of joy, but also makes me feel slightly ashamed that I didn’t do them justice. Of course, after all, no words of mine could come close to capturing Denver’s own, especially when composed where he was at his best: accompanied by his trusty guitar, immersed in the exquisiteness of the world he cherished so dearly.
I still don’t know why I woke up that night years ago, and I certainly don’t know why my television was left on PBS. But, I can honestly, say, I’m glad it all happened as it did.